Aron Heller

JERUSALEM: Thousands of Israelis flocked to parliament Thursday to view the casket of Shimon Peres, paying final respects to the former president and prime minister whose life story mirrored that of his country.

Dignitaries began arriving for a funeral that is expected to be Israelís largest since that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peresí partner in peace who was slain by a Jewish nationalist in 1995.

Peresí office said more than 90 delegations from 70 countries have confirmed their participation, including U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, German President Joachim Gauck, Prince Charles of Britain and King Felipe VI of Spain.

After an initial hesitation due to the collapse of peace efforts, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also confirmed his participation, as did representatives from Egypt and Jordan ó the two Arab countries at peace with Israel. That was a testament to the wide reach of Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was his countryís strongest advocate for ending the conflict in the Middle East.

In contrast to an outpouring of grief from Western leaders, Arab leaders have remained largely silent over Peresí death. Abbas was one of the few to express sorrow. A representative said he wanted to attend the funeral to send a message to Israeli society that despite the current stalemate, Palestinians still believe in peace and appreciate men of peace like Peres.

A spokesman for Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, urged Abbas to cancel.

Many in the Arab world are deeply critical of Peres because of his role in building Israelís defense arsenal, his early support for West Bank settlements and for waging war in Lebanon while prime minister. Israeli Arab leaders, whose community Peres championed, were also conspicuously quiet.

Police were preparing for a complicated security operation, which will include the closing of the major highway from the airport, as well as shutting down a large part of Jerusalem. Schools near the national cemetery are to be closed, and thousands of additional forces have been deployed.

Peresí casket lay in state in the plaza outside the Knesset, or parliament, as soldiers in uniform, teenagers from youth movements and Israelis from all walks of life lined up on a warm September day to pay their respects. They were joined by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the first foreign dignitary to arrive.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin laid wreaths beside the casket early Thursday.